Given the challenge of representing a spherical planet on a flat surface, all map projections are in one way or another distorted. This is inevitable. Students can appreciate this in a mathematics class by trying to peel an orange and then flatten the peel. Is it possible to get a perfect rectangle without tearing the peel? Chances are that the best they could get is something close to what is referred to as an ‘Interrupted projection’. Given that getting a perfect rectangle is basically impossible, how is it possible to portray a spherical world on a rectangular flat map? The latter has been the biggest challenge for cartographers ever since the first attempts to represent a round earth on a flat surface!
As much as a globe is the only way one can represent all the geographical relationships without distortions, having flat maps is convenient. The problem does not lie in using flat maps, but rather in the fact that the distortions or biases are not made clear to the person using the map. Is it explained anywhere in an atlas that there is a distortion of angles, directions, shapes, distances or areas? Every map projection has its strengths and weaknesses, and which map to use should depend on the reason for using it.
The shape of world maps has varied considerably in the history of cartography including such shapes as hearts and cones. However, this diversity is not commonly encountered and many of us expect the shape of a map to be rectangular with a very specific representation of the continents, with Europe at the centre and north at the top of the page. This is because of our constant exposure to the Mercator projection which was created by a Flemish cartographer in 1569 but is still the most common world map today.
For many of us the Mercator map is the world map. Try to ask a group of students or teachers to sketch a world map from memory. Chances are that they will all reproduce the same representation of the world! … why is this so?
The Mercator projection is ideal for navigation purposes since it shows accurate directions. It also gives the right shape of countries. However, this comes at a cost. Sizes are distorted in favour of northern countries. So for example, looking at a Mercator map one would think that North America is larger than Africa but this is not the case. Scandinavian countries look bigger than India when in actual fact the latter is three times the size.
Is it merely a coincidence that Europe is at the centre of the map and looks much bigger than it is in reality and that north is put at the top?
The fact that north is put at the top is mere convention. For example, in medieval Christian maps east was at the top. This is because of the belief that the Garden of Eden and the world emanated from east. Islamic maps of the same period put south at the top due to the orientation of Mecca. It very much seems that the reasons for distortions are not mere technical ones and that the reasons for showing maps from a particular perspective are not mere coincidences but that there are ideological underpinnings behind them. Why would cartographers (mapmakers) want us to look at the world from that particular angle? As educators we need to question what we tend to take as natural or objective, and instil in our students a sense of inquisitiveness.
“The omnipresence of maps has allowed them to acquire a nearly transcendental status and this prevents most individuals from questioning what exactly maps represent.” (Brabec, 2015)